By Scott Helser on Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF)
Such are the headlines of the many news stories recounting the discovery, rescue and ongoing rehabilitation of a Newark, New Jersey dog named “Patrick” (so named because his recovery started on St. Patrick’s Day). The defendant, Kisha Curtis, is reportedly now charged under N.J. Stat. Ann. § 4:22-17(b)(1) for the reckless “torment [and] torture” that Patrick endured while wasting away to half of his normal bodyweight—a process that veterinarians say takes at least 30 days.
Think about that period of time: 30 days. Think back to what you had for dinner a month ago. Consider what it might feel like to go for 30 hours without eating. Now think about what it would be like to go for seven days without food… Expand that to two weeks of no food. Imagine what it must feel like to crave food so badly that you are willing to eat rocks, plastic, wood or feces just to put something into your stomach. Starvation causes terrible suffering.
Fortunately for Patrick (and, as it turns out, Ms. Curtis) Patrick didn’t die. Under New Jersey law, assuming that Ms. Curtis (who appears to have a Facebook page and is now out on bail, pending a court appearance on May 6, 2011) has no prior convictions of a similar nature, the maximum possible sentence, if convicted, is 18 months (not years) in custody and a $10,000 fine. That’s because this form of protracted and aggravated animal abuse is only a “fourth degree” crime. (Note that New Jersey ranked 47th in ALDF’s 2010 State Animal Protection Laws Rankings.) If Ms. Curtis happens to have a prior conviction under § 4:22-17, then the theoretical maximum sentence would increase to 3-5 years of incarceration and a $15,000 fine.
Patrick, April 6, 2011
It is important to recall that we are dealing with theoretical maximums here—most states, like New Jersey, allow defendants to shave 20% off their sentence for “good behavior.” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 30:4-140. Further, in New Jersey a defendant can “earn out” even earlier with work credits of up to one day off their sentence for every five days worked. That is another 20% cut. The bottom line on the maximum possible net sentencing if Ms. Curtis is convicted: (a) 14.4 months of actual time with the “good behavior credit” and (b) 10.8 months if she lands a job while incarcerated. Thus, the 18-month theoretical maximum is only a pipedream. A sub-eleven month jail term seems indefensibly short given Patrick’s profound and protracted suffering – suffering which was caused by, at best, a callous disregard for the value of life.
There are, however, options to remedy such a gross injustice. For example, while the defendant is currently charged with only one count of animal cruelty (via torture and torment) for allegedly starving Patrick nearly to death, the prosecutor could also charge the defendant for the alleged bagging and throwing of Patrick down a trash chute—such conduct would fall squarely within N.J. Stat. Ann. § 4:22-17(a). More significantly, this conduct could be alleged as a separate criminal episode – distinct and divisible from the long-term starvation – and a conviction on this separate charge would give the court the option to impose consecutive sentences, thus increasing the defendant’s maximum possible net sentence. See, State v. Carey, 168 N.J. 413; 775 A.2d 495 (1999).
Patrick’s plight has moved many to action, and you can rest assured that ALDF’s Criminal Justice Program will gladly provide every resource at its disposal to the Essex County Acting Prosecutor to ensure a just outcome in this very compelling case.